Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Your Body During a Breakup: The Science of a Broken Heart

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Breakups are emotional roller coasters. Actually that’s not true. If a breakup was anything like a roller coaster the end would be visible from the start, you could say ‘no thanks’ to the ride and at the end of it, for a hefty sum the memory could be savoured forever with a flimsy cardboard-framed photo.

Breakups are are more like being under a roller coaster. 

Before we knew the science we knew the feeling, and used words associated with physical pain – hurt, pain, ache – are used describe the pain of a relationship breakup. Now we know why. The emotional pain of a breakup and physical pain have something in common – they both activate the same part of the brain

Brain scans of people recently out of a relationship have revealed that social pain (the emotional pain from a breakup or rejection) and physical pain share the same neural pathways.

In one study, 40 people who had recently been through an unwanted breakup had their brains scanned while they looked at pictures of their exes and thought about the breakup. As they stared at the photos, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up.

As explained by researcher Ethan Kross, ‘We found that powerfully inducing feelings of social rejection activate regions of the brain that are involved in physical pain sensation, which are rarely activated in neuroimaging studies of emotion.’

He continues, ‘These findings are consistent with the idea that the experience of social rejection, or social loss more generally, may represent a distinct emotional experience that is uniquely associated with physical pain.’

In further support of the overlap between physical and social pain, Tylenol (an over the counter medication for physical pain) has been shown to reduce emotional hurt.

Research has found that people who took Tylenol (an over-the-counter medication for physical pain) for three weeks reported less hurt feelings and social pain on a daily basis than those who took a placebo.

The effect was also evident in brain scans. When feelings of rejection were induced, the part of the brain associated with physical pain lit up in participants who didn’t take Tylenol. Those who took Tylenol showed significantly less activity in that part of the brain.

Nobody is suggesting that the broken hearted turn to pain medication to reduce their lean towards Kleenex, Baskin-Robbins and repeated viewings of Love Actually. Long term use will cane the liver. Somebody else is waiting to fall in love with you, but you and your liver have to stay friends forever.

The Physical Side of a Broken Heart

The human brain loves love. Being in love takes the lid off the happy hormones, dopamine and oxytocin, and the brain bathes in the bliss. But when the one you love leaves, the supply of feel good hormones takes a dive and the brain releases stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.

In small doses, stress hormones are heroic, ensuring we respond quickly and effectively to threat. However in times of long-term distress such as a broken heart, the stress hormones accumulate and cause trouble. Here’s what’s behind the physical symptoms of a breakup:

  • Too much cortisol in the brain sends blood to the major muscle groups. They tense up ready to respond to the threat (fight or flight). However, without real need for a physical response the muscles have no opportunity to expend the energy.

    Muscles swell, giving rise to headaches, a stiff neck and that awful feeling of your chest being squeezed.

  • To ensure the muscles have an adequate blood supply, cortisol diverts blood away from the digestive system.

    This can cause tummy trouble such as cramps, diarrhea or appetite loss. 

  • When stress hormones run rampant, the immune system can struggle, increasing vulnerability to bugs and illnesses.

    Hence the common ‘break-up cold’.

  • There is a steady release of cortisol.

    This might cause sleep problems and interfere with the capacity to make sound judgements 

  • Breakups activate the area of your brain that processes craving and addiction.

    Losing a relationship can throw you into a type of withdrawal, which is why it’s hard to function – you ache for your ex, sometimes literally, and can’t get him/her out of your head. Like any addiction, this will pass.

In a relationship, your mind, your body and the core of you adjust to being intimately connected someone. When that someone leaves, the brain has to readjust. The pain can be relentless but eventually the body chemistry will change back to normal and the hurt will diminish.

Getting through a breakup is as much a physical process as an emotional one. Remember that, and know that it will get easier. Keep going. You’ll get there.

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357 Comments

Amanda P.

I can’t cope with the pain of my break up. Can’t eat or sleep, I feel depressed. Can’t sleep without sleeping pills or wine. And to make things worse I think I’m getting addicted to them. How can I make myself feel better and sleep better?

Reply
Lost

I’m going through the same thing. It’s so hard to sleep and I’ve been drinking to cope and taking sleeping medicine. And waking up is the worst because you’re thrown into this new reality you’ve come to hate. I told myself I was going to stop drinking because that’s an awful reason to start a bad habit and I’ve been okay for a few nights now. Just remind yourself that you are strong and you are capable and you have your whole life ahead of you. I promise, one day this pain will subside and you will feel like yourself again. Please don’t ruin more years of your life by becoming dependent on substances. I believe in you. <3

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felix

i am currently going through the same feelings now she just left and said i should forget about her though i dont also want to go back to her because i know she might hurt me the more but still i cant get my mind of her how are you coping now ? were you able to totally forget about her ?

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batphink

Felix was that intended for me? If so it’s been 3 years and 6 months and though I still have the odd bad day I have 100% accepted the fact she is never contacting me again. I have been through this so many times with women that I now no longer bother with them. Good Luck you WILL feel better sooner than you think concentrate on improving you and your life:)

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Ken B

My ex-girlfriend of two years accused me constantly at looking at blondes whenever we went into a store. She’d Always start arguments that lasted hours without resolve. Then she started calling me names and putting me doing every way until I had had enough. I had yo call the police three times to have her removed from my residence. All three times she got a restraining order on me but once in court she would get my attention and say she was sorry then drop the emergency restraining order. But the fourth time I had enough of her abuse and we went in front of the judge. I had all the police reports that showed that I never physically abused her in any way but the bullheaded judged ruled in her favor and extended the restraining order for a year. I lost my gun license, my job and her all because she lied to the judge. Now I’m going through so much stress because I don’t trust her. She told me that she put her last boyfriend in jail too. She has anxiety, PTSD, and some other mental illness she won’t discuss with me but I believe it’s either borderline bipolar, split personality or narcissism. I was with her every day for two years and we did get along most of the time but I couldn’t take the mental abuse any longer and it got worse because she stopped going to her psychiatrist twice per week. She definitely needs help but I still miss her surprisingly. The only good thing to come out of the relationship is that I’m a musician and I’ve written about three good songs lol. Oh well, such is life and it’s speed bumps. I guess everyone goes through this crap and it’s just my turn…that’s how I see it.

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Abrianna P

Me and My ex had been up & down. It was long distance. We had broken up several times. We hurt each other back and forth. He would constantly belittle me and call me names and made me feel bad for guys always wanting to talk to me, yet i only had eyes for him. We decided we were gonna meet up after a year in about 4 weeks. He started getting distant and acting different last week. He kept telling me he was busy, turns out he was in a thing with another female who was MY FRIEND. I confronted him and he started acting like an a**hole. And now my chest feels so heavy, this happened yesterday. I’m about to graduate high school this Thursday and I am struggling and crying while studying. I feel like throwing up, I am just tryna push it through

Reply
batphink

If he treats you this was and you’re not married could you imagine the tension of you were and all the legal hoops he;d make you jump through?
You are you and believe me though I’m a guy I went through so much hell with cheating women that I no longer bother.Like I said you are young and guys want to chat with you,remember that you have plenty of chances of finding a truly decent guy don’t rush it.Trust me when I say you WILL get over this,I’m a bit of an expert. Best Wishes and keep your mind focused on improving your life 🙂

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Richard B

Just recently exited a 5 year relationship. Just going to leave a few bullet points down below that ultimately led to our demise.

– Twice, in 5 years, did she ever tell me initially, she Loved me first, I always said it.
– Never posted a picture on any social media platform of us, and she was an avid daily user.
– Never liked, commented, or responded to anything I ever posted on Social media…actually once, she liked a photo a posted then unliked it, true story.
– Made me feel guilty for not offering her financial help when her work reduced her hours for 2 months…but said she wouldn’t have taken any money if I offered, but upset that I didn’t offer…(She lived at home, with her Mom, no rent, no bills to pay, just her own, makes 45k a year…I really didn’t think she needed help.)
– Asked me how much money I had in my 401k.
– Asked if my sister and husband signed a pre-nup.
– Her Mom paid for her breast augmentation. (found that out much later.)
– Admitted 3 months prior to the end, she was “spoiled and lazy, and knows it.”

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Marisela M

I been in a 3 year on and off relationship. He was nice at first but started to get upset for little things. I didn’t hang the towel straight, toothpaste cap didn’t put it on. Till name calling started and even told me to get of his truck in middle of the night. I for gave him many times. Till l asked for commitment or Separate ways. He said he was done, didn’t have time for me. I didn’t understand his work hours. Hurts but am mourning a time l spend on someone that doesn’t deserve me.

Reply
Ken

Marisela, You are your own best psychiatrists. Sounds like he has ocd and some other issues that would drive anyone away. You want someone who makes you feel great about yourself especially someone who always will care for you. You must decide the pro’s and con’s of a relationship and what’s best for you. There are plenty of guys out there so don’t be discouraged. Some people base a relationship purely on one thing but this is not a good idea especially if it’s something like sex. You need to ask yourself what “YOU” want or are willing to give up to make you happy. Again, you are your own best psychiatrist. Talk things out and best of luck. KB

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Kira

My boyfriend broke up with me over me not having a better paying job n avoided me before the break up. Claiming he’s frustrated with bills n its my fault…. Now I have this dull heavy feeling in my chest. It doesn’t feel like sadness but I feeling of not caring about them anymore.

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Lost

My boyfriend of 2.5 years broke up with me a week ago. I have felt lost and confused ever since, going through a wide range of emotions from anger to fear to hurt to hope to depression. Every single day feels like a struggle to keep going. Towards the end, he felt like I was not showing him love. And I realized I wasn’t because I always had this deep-seeded fear of losing him which subconsciously caused me to become distant. I didn’t even realize that was the cause until after the breakup and now I know for a fact I can never become that person again out of fear. I caused him so much pain because he thought I didn’t love him and now I’ve lost him. I want nothing more than to get back together with him and show him the love I am capable of giving and the love he deserves to feel every single day. My chest hurts all the time and my body doesn’t know how to occupy itself without him. I feel trapped and suffocated and scared. I don’t know what to do. I want nothing more than to show him how this short time has changed me permanently and I’m terrified I’ll never get that chance.

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Marie

Hi ! I really enjoyed your article. I am trying to find why i am so sad and why my body is being affected. my girlfriend left the country for a few months and my body is having such a rough time. I have gotten the crying down to only a few times a day but I have had no appetite since she has left. I eat hardly anything and it has almost been a week. I have lost over 10 since she’s left. I found your article interesting about the digestive system. thank you !

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Unhappy man

My ex left her boyfriend for me, then returned to him 4 months later! It was such a shock as it had been great from day one, she told me she loved me daily. We worked together and got on really well, I was a shoulder to cry on when things weren’t going great at home and eventually she declared she was leaving her boyfriend for me as we had more in common. At first she was still living with her ex (she didn’t have the heart to throw him out) while staying at mine regularly and sleeping with me.

After 4 months I thought things were going great and the ex had been out of the picture for 3 months. She had a trip to go and see her friends (they were mutual friends of her ex) I didn’t think I had any reason to worry so encouraged her to go have some fun with her friends, after all I had my daughter for the weekend. The day after she had left I noticed her message reply’s became short, no kisses etc, I assumed she was busy and not much time to reply. A couple of days later she returns and I ask if we are seeing each other this weekend. She reply’s with a standard response but no reply to seeing me. I then ask her is anything is wrong, she dosent seem her usual self and it feels like she is splitting up with me. She reply’s that she is really sorry but she can’t offer me 100% of her self and needs time and to be single.

I just could not believe it as things had been so good and this was so unexpected. After she returned to work she completely blanked me like i didn’t exist for around a month. Eventually she spoke to me stating that she was not 100% sure about everything. I really have never felt so low, 5 months one and she has now left our workplace for a new job so I thought it would get easier, I was wrong. I still wake up everyday feeling empty, I have memories everywhere I look, at home and work. I Still have no closure as I don’t really know the reason she left me, all I know is they day she left work she added her ex on Facebook as her relationship. So looks like she left me for him, so why leave him for me in the first place?? I believe it was the age gap (12 years) and I have a daughter that she didn’t really try with. Although she did state neither of these were a problem when she had asked if I had any concerns before starting a relationship. I Just really don’t know about anything and it still really hurts especially when she still txt me, just random things like “hey hope your well”. I don’t reply.

Reply
ann

Mornings are especially the worst. I feel numb, i cannot cry but tears always trickle down my face anytime i see something that reminds me of him. It was a long distance relationship for 3 years, engaged to be married this december. He was a recovering addict the subtle tones of be-littling me were always there, you never get my jokes, if you have a problem with understanding english say it. ( it was a bi-racial relationship). I could never say how i felt because it always led to a fight, my needs were always interpreted as being insecure. I miss him a lot, i tried getting back with him but he said he needs to focus on himself and his job, deep down i know i deserve better, that to the right man i will be enough, but for now living a day at a time is hard. I hope 1 year i wll come back and give a testimony that IF NOT THIS THEN SOMETHING BETTER.

Reply

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